As someone who competed for 11 years at the national level, I can tell you that as much as I loved swimming, I also hated it. Nearly every coach I came across with a reputation for being one of the best was also incredibly mean. Not just “makes you swim hard” mean, but yelling, cursing, throwing kickboards at children in the water mean. These coaches were also known to weigh female swimmers in front of each other, or make comments about their bodies (pointing out thigh size, for example, or the effects of puberty). With over 20 hours in the pool a week, in a setting where pushing yourself so hard you throw up is seen as a sign of a “good” practice, boundaries can be blurry or scarcely exist.
That all came back when my childhood sport made headlines this past week. An investigative report by The Southern California News Group alleges that USA Swimming covered up the sexual abuse of hundreds of swimmers, mostly by their coaches, The Orange County Register reported. The investigation alleges that officials at every level knew about predatory coaches, even receiving complaints about specific instances, and—as with USA Gymnastics during Larry Nasser’s reign of terror—they did nothing about it for decades. (Two top swimming officials have resigned as a result.)
I’m a psychiatrist now, which means I’m overexposed to this kind of evil and able to feel protected from it by a false sense of distance (I’m not a gymnast! I am not an actress!). But it became obvious during Nassar’s weeks-long trial, which included impact statements from 156 survivors, that the question wasn’t whether other powerful men in elite sports would stand accused, but when and who. I find myself feeling angry, ashamed, sad, defensive, and ultimately, not surprised that it was my sport that came next.
Photo by allendc33